Buying Raw Milk? Questions to Ask Your Dairy Farmer

(Image credit: Apartment Therapy)

Getting to know your farmer is always a good thing, and never more so than in the case of raw milk. It’s not enough to say the cows are grass-fed, organic, or raised humanely on a small, local farm. Unpasteurized milk can be risky, with bacterial contamination occurring in/on the animal or during processing, storage, and transport. We asked Amanda Rose, author of the Raw Milk Consumer Guide, to describe some of the most important safety concerns, along with questions to ask your dairy farmer.

“In the old days of raw milk (just a couple of years ago),” says Rose, “many raw milk advocates insisted that raw milk could not be contaminated – that raw milk has protective bacteria that kills pathogens. With several high-profile outbreaks where the outbreak pathogen strain was found at the dairy itself, this notion is basically outdated. Consumers now want to find a dairy that is producing milk less likely to be contaminated.”

Rose points out that “raw milk will always be a riskier beverage pathogen-wise than it would be if we heated the same milk on our stove top,” but one can reduce the risk by sourcing wisely. Building a relationship of understanding and trust might include meeting the farmer, visiting the dairy, and talking to employees at the farmer’s market. Ultimately, it’s a personal decision, but it can be helpful to have some questions as a guide. Rose recommends that consumers focus on different types of questions depending on the size of the farm.

Large dairy (30+ cows)

Do you test for pathogens? How often?
How did you respond after your last bad pathogen test?

Rose says: I would ask about their pathogen testing protocol. They are big enough that they can afford to test. Ask how regularly they test and what they do when they get a bad test result back. If they claim to have a perfect record of pathogen tests and they have been in business for a while, I would be hesitant to buy. Bad test results are a fact of life and the best dairies face them and make improvements accordingly.

Medium dairy (3+ cows)

What kind of equipment do you use for milking? How often is it cleaned?
How quickly do you cool down the milk? How do you keep it cold?

Rose says: I would ask first about their milking practices. They are too small to afford regular testing but they are big enough that they should have milking equipment that is sanitized regularly and a milking area that can be cleaned thoroughly. They should be able to cool their milk immediately and keep it cool. At this size, I would consider a muddy floor and dirty milk barn to be warning signs.

Small dairy (1-2 cows)

How do you prepare the animal for milking?
How quickly do you cool down the milk? How do you keep it cold?

Rose says: For an “itty bitty” dairy, you will need to keep your ears open and listen to their story. The dairy is definitely too small to afford testing and probably milks into an open bucket. On the positive side, you will be consuming milk from just a few animals, which is theoretically less risky. On the other hand, their equipment will not be ideal from a food safety point of view. Ask how they milk hygienically and how they cool their milk and keep it cool. The details they provide you should reveal how much care they take. It is not straightforward to milk into a bucket and then cool the milk quickly. They will have a story to tell if they do, and the story will vary by farm.

Of course, it goes without saying that one should ask politely and not simply go down a laundry list of questions. For more tips on interviewing and choosing a raw dairy farmer, check out Rose’s full report, linked below.

(Image: Emily Ho)